Saturday, April 2, 2022

Shortis & Simpson - Under the Influence #2

Under the Influence #2, guest Karen MiddletonShortis & Simpson at Smith’s Alternative, Canberra, April 1, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Karen Middleton

Photo supplied

The headline should read KAREN MIDDLETON DOESN’T CROSS THE LINE.  As a long-standing political journalist based in the Press Gallery of Australia’s national Parliament House, can she objectively report on all sides, and then write and sing satirical songs about politicians?  Can she sing them to the general public, but only after singing them to the politicians themselves in the Press Gallery’s annual social gathering?  Where is the line, and did she cross it last night at Smith’s Alternative (one-time Bookshop)?

John and Moya – Shortis & Simpson – in Under the Influence #2 with guest Karen Middleton brought a nice feeling of warmth and entertainment to a packed house, including some others from the other House, the Press Gallery’s “House Howlers” choir who joined Karen, Moya and John for a grand finale: Kevin (never quite rhymed with ‘heaven’) Rudd; Off to an Election and The Hose, about you know who.  

Only those in the know can know what political lines were crossed, but Karen had reported earlier that their song about how 11-year-long PM, John Howard, refused to act on his agreement with Peter Costello to let him have a go, had gone down well.  At least with Peter who had told her he was happy with the song – though of course never happy with Howard’s refusal to do the right thing and the loss of government to Labor in 2007.  

Named I Only Want The Job You Do, it was a good song too, as Gilbert and Sullivan might have said.  As they also would have said about the song which opened the second half, naming and shaming all the Australian Prime Ministers from Edmund Barton to Scott Morrison – covering both sides of the aisle, of course: a combination of the Howlers’ parody with excerpts from Shortis & Simpson’s songs Your First PM, Malcolm (Turnbull) Where’s Your Troosers and The Very Model of a Modern Governor General, about the Governor General, Sir (can you believe it?) John Kerr, who dismissed Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in 1975.  But the warmth in the room generated by satirical fun was a reflection of an audience enjoying the risk of crossing lines of all political kinds.  Smith’s Alternative was just the right venue, in name and in nature.

Though we pride ourselves today, as we should, on our multi-cultural credentials, I am still proud of our parliament’s traditions going back at least to the lampooning of Edmund Burke in Britain’s 18th Century parliament by Gillray - Smelling Out a Rat...


Gillray - Smelling Out a Rat... [1790]
© Trustees of the British Museum

But satire is not the only kind of influence Karen Middleton brought to bear.  Equally important was her concern for equity, social empathy in practice and in response to her experiences reporting from around the world.  Still young (from my point of view) at 56, her life of travel is a source of jealousy on my part – except, perhaps, for the dangers and awful situations she sometimes faced.  

After her favourite musical songs from her younger self in the first half – Joseph’s Technicoloured Dream Coat, Protestant hymns (which even Moya the atheist remembered), a sad Mull of Kintyre, All My Loving and the Bay City Rollers’ Give a Little Love through to ABBA’s Mamma Mia and There Are Worse Things I could Do from Grease – giving us a picture of a perfectly ordinary teenager of her time, we were treated to the truly awful national anthem O Canada (from when her family lived in Ottawa) in both French and English, of course.

On the political side was Right Hand Man from Keating, The Musical and the Australian Labor Party jingle Let’s Stick Together.  But on the social issues side came a surprise.  Her family had taken in a Vietnamese family when those people came by boats, and Bosnian people during that pre-Ukrainian war, as well as her experience in Arnhem Land – so we were impressed with Karen and Moya presenting in their languages the Vietnamese children’s song Con Co, the Bosnian poem Emina set to music and Geoffrey Gurrumul's Djambarrpuyngu language song to his father, Bapa.

In the second half, after those Howler parodies of PMs, the mood changed to the very human feelings of regularly visiting New York (Art Garfunkel’s song and Always True to You from Kiss Me Kate on Broadway) and being there with John Howard in 2001 on September 11 (the song from Come From Away called 28 Hours about the diverted airline pilots, including a colleague flying one of those which were deliberately crashed).

Then Karen’s personal feelings were revealed through Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Roy Orbison’s song Blue Bayou as sung by Linda Ronstadt, and a Bulgarian traditional song Vetar Ve sung gloriously together with Moya.  That exhilaration shifted dramatically for Fred Smith’s Sappers’ Lullaby from his, and Karen’s, experiences of useless death in the war in Afghanistan.

John Shortis brought us back home with a genuine study of Grace Tame – her having such grace and never being tame as Australian of the Year.

So that Grand Finale about Kevin Rudd on one side, the upcoming election and The Hose to balance on the other side – essentially leaving us with little hope of any politicians leading us to a time of peace, equity and empathy – gave us a Karen Middleton of honesty and depth of understanding, and an influence for good in the world.  

Perhaps this is one of Shortis & Simpson’s strongest shows over all their years as Canberra’s conscience since they began at the Queanbeyan School of Arts Café in 1996.